Sundae Horn
Pamlico Sound sunrise
Pamlico Sound sunrise

What’s the best way to get visitors to and from the remote island paradise of Ocracoke?

As interest in passenger-only ferries grows, the NCDOT is conducting a feasibility study about all the possible ways to address congestion on the Ocracoke-Hatteras route.

In a small control group meeting on Monday, the ferry division’s deputy director Jed Dixon made it clear that the feasibility study is not just about passenger-only ferries.

“It’s going to look at all of our options,” he said. “The study is about how to get people over here. We’ve got to do something different looking into the future.”

Why? Because “If the long route is our destiny, we have to find a way to make up the difference to keep up the capacity of visitors,” he said. “Can we double the size of our fleet? Or do we look at other options?”

In any case, Jed and the rest of the fine folks who run the ferries want input from Ocracoke. Jed was seeking a representative from Ocracoke and Hyde County to serve on a steering committee (Yay! More meetings!) with officials from the ferry division and US Coast Guard. The committee will review the feasibility of all the possible possibilities as they are studied.

Meanwhile, Jed and the ferry folk are still working with the Corps of Engineers to bring back the shorter route if and when they can.

“The Corps is still responsible for maintenance of the old channel,” he said. “And we are working longterm, pursuing permits and funding to widen the channel. When we can use it, we’ll use it. We know the importance of it.”

Jed was pleased to announce that the vessel Ocracoke returned to service on the Hatteras-Ocracoke route. It has just had a major engine refit, as will another four of the Hatteras-Ocracoke boats. The refit gives them more horsepower, which increases speed and maneuverability. Even better? The upgrades are funded by a Federal grant and not the state budget. (Another Federal grant will pay for rebuilding two of the docks on the Hatteras side. Look for construction to being in November. Part of the same $$ is paying for the new building coming soon at the Swan Quarter terminal.)

The Ocracoke is the 7th boat working the Hatteras-Ocracoke route, and a seventh boat is just what was needed to help the traffic flow this week. Most of the summer, they’ve had six boats on that route, and that’s not quite enough to get all the daytrippers over and back in a timely fashion. 

“Each crew can only work twelve hours,” Jed explained. “It’s really hard to get five round trips out of them – it comes to about 11 hours and 45 minutes, with no layover times. We unload and reload again as fast as possible.”

“The boats are being run hard,” Jed said. He added that there’s a perception that the ferries have been breaking down a lot this summer, but actually, the number of boats down is the usual. The difference is that there’s no back-up.

“On the short route, we had four boats running, with two extra on standby. If a boat went down, we had another. Now we’ve had six boats running and no extras,” he said. The addition of the re-fitted Ocracoke will help in case of breakdowns and traffic back-ups. And they’ll keep it around in the fall to use on holiday weekends and for the Pirate Jamboree. 

Jed said that he’s working with the Corps on trying to shave some time off the long route. They’d like to find a way to cut each trip down by 15 minutes, which would allow each crew to out in six round trips in 12 hours.

Or… they could find another way to get people from point A to point B, which is where our story leads us back to high-speed – oops!, I mean, passenger-only ferries. (Jed cautioned against using the term “high-speed ferries” – licensing requirements are different for boats that go 39 knots or more and the ferry division has no plans to go that fast. If we ever do get passenger-only ferries, they will be “high-speed” only in the sense that they will go faster than our “low-speed” ferries that cruise at a leisurely 10 knots.)

Jed showed us a route he mapped for the hypothetical passenger-only trip from Hatteras to Silver Lake. It’s 23 miles, dock to dock. This possible ferry of the future could possibly leave Hatteras slowly and follow Barney Slough out into the sound, then zip along the backside of Ocracoke where the water is consistently deep, making good time (perhaps an exhilarating 20 knots), and then slow down to enter Big Foot Slough and cruise on into Ocracoke like the Swan Quarter and Cedar Island ferries do. Jed thinks that trip could be done in 1.5 hours, and he says “it would be a lot of bang for your buck.” (Not that they’re necessarily charging for this ride – that’s part of the feasibility study, too!)

The control group of local business owners had only positive comments to make about the dreamboat passenger-only ferries. “Daytrippers will increase just for the thrill of riding on it,” said one. “We’ll have a 30% increase for the first few years,” said another. “If people knew they could sign up for a 10am ferry and definitely be on that 10am ferry, and not wait in line for an hour or two or three, they’d go for it,” said another.

(The control group had too much good sense to worry that passenger ferries would spell doom for the car ferries. “This would be in addition to the other ferry routes,” Jed said unnecessarily.)

And the group also discussed the reality of logistics. Will there be a reservation system? Where will these passengers leave their cars? On Hatteras? (Swan Quarter?) How will they get around on the island? Bring on the feasibility study!

Beverly Paul from Hyde County Transit spoke about the grant she’s applying for that would provide tram service around the village. She could also ask for buses to bring walk-on passengers from the north end of Ocracoke to the village. She’s looking ahead to 2017 and trying to figure out what the ferry division can accomplish in that time so that their services complement each other. As it is, without changing a thing, the ferries could bring an extra 30-50 walk-on passengers over on each trip. She’s got to know what to request by her October deadline and will continue to dialogue with the ferry division. 

“Parking at Hatteras is the biggest piece of the puzzle,” Jed admitted. Wouldn't you have guessed it was money? Not only are passenger-only ferries cheaper to build than the big ferries, there’s Federal Transit Authority funds just for passenger-only ferries. Who knew? Jed has already contacted the FTA to get that ball rolling.

He also said that the passenger-only ferries would make a big splash. “We’ll get people’s attention,” he said. “This can’t be rolled out haphazardly.”

The idea is catching on in Raleigh. “There’s a lot of attention from the top down,” Jed said. “The decision-makers are excited about it.”